Felt and kantha

I love the results of my kantha stitching experiments, but it’s quite hard on the fingers stitching through four layers of fabric. So I thought I’d see if I could produce similar results on something softer, like felt.

I stitched a couple of circles made out of prefelt, and then felted these onto a piece of flat felt along with two plain unstitched circles of prefelt. After felting, I stitched the two plain circles. This let me compare the results of stitching before and after felting.

kantha prefeltkantha felt sample

As you can see, the prefelt circles that were stitched before felting flattened out and distorted during the felting process, and the thread started to hang loose in places because the felt shrank. The circles that were stitched after felting were much more distinct.

Circle stitched before felting
Circle stitched before felting
Circle stitched after felting
Circle stitched after felting

So I felted some grey prefelt onto a piece of silk crinkle chiffon to make a sample nuno felt scarf. As I hope you can see, the ruched texture caused by the felt shrinking onto the silk is enhanced by the stitching afterwards. I call it my limpet scarf!

kantha felt scarfkantha felt scarf detail

It’s a lot of stitching, but at least it’s easier on the fingers. 🙂

World Eco-Fibre and Textile Art

The thing about living in London is that I’m constantly finding out about places and events I’ve never heard of. Although I was a student at UCL, just around the corner from the School of Oriental and African Studies, I’d never been to the Brunei Gallery – until yesterday.

The reason for going was an exhibition called World Eco-Fibre and Textile [WEFT – geddit?] Art, organised by Society Atelier Sarawak of Malaysia. The aim of the exhibition is to show how traditional techniques, including ikat, shibori, weaving, dyeing and printing are being used and developed by contemporary textile artists around the world.

The upper level starts with explanations of techniques. There are particularly good descriptions and samples of Indian embroidery by Asif Shaikh of Ahmedabad in Gujarat. Most are mounted on a karchob – a wooden, horizontal, floor-mounted frame that is large enough to let several people work on a piece at the same time. Stunning pieces included aari (chain stitch done using an awl rather than a needle) in single-ply silk and kamdhani (embroidery using badla, or metal thread).

Aari embroidery with single ply silk
Aari embroidery with single ply silk
Kamdhani embroidery with metal thread
Kamdhani embroidery with metal thread

Metal thread was also used to embroider dots onto a piece of silk georgette indigo bandhani.

SOAS bandhani

And there were some traditional nomadic QashQai felt jackets from the Semiron region of Iran, made from the wool of local sheep and goats. This was felt used for function rather than form – they were really thick and heavy, with the arms totally enclosed so that they resembled penguin flippers!

SOAS felt jacket

Downstairs is a wonderful selection of contemporary items – I’m just picking out a few of my favourites here.

Edric Ong, who curated the exhibition,  is the President of Society Atelier Sarawak, and much of his work is featured, including some beautiful handspun, handwoven silk shawls dyed with ketapang leaves and mangrove tree bark using itajime clamping techniques. He also showed some hand-stamped indigo leaves on silk and cotton, a shibori bound scarf, and even jewellery made from plaited pandanus leaves.

shibori ong-hangings

There was also some wonderful contemporary shibori work, both stitched and tied, by Aranya Natural, a community development project in Kerala, India (sorry, no photos, as the pieces were in a case and difficult to shoot in low light). They specialise in natural dyes, and achieved some fantastic colours.

The focus on natural yarns and dyes meant there was a lot of indigo, from Hiroyuki Shindo’s Indigo Mountain series and Japanese recycled boro ranru jackets to Chinese Hmong/Miao indigo batik on handwoven hemp.

japanese-indigo SOAS hmong indigo

There was even some contemporary kantha work, including a piece of featuring lots of circles that reminds me of my turtle project, and a Bengali piece that included couching as well as running stitch.


As you might have noticed, I’ve just focused here on the work that reflects my (current) obsessions of felt, shibori, indigo and embroidery, but there are lots of other lovely pieces, from exquisite horsehair jewellery and handwoven recycled leather to pineapple fibre shawls and batik sarongs. Well worth a visit.

World Eco-Fibre and Textile Art runs at the Brunei Gallery until 23 March.

Meghwal embroidery

I haven’t had much time to post lately, due to pressures of the day job. So I thought I’d better try to get down some more memories of India, while they’re still (reasonably) fresh.

The Meghwal tribal people are originally from Pakistan, but many of them live in Kutch.

We visited the village of Bhirandiyara, a collection of circular and hexagonal bungha huts made from a mixture of mud, buffalo dung and sawdust. Apparently, during the big earthquake that devastated much of the area in 2001, this traditional architecture managed to survive while many modern buildings collapsed.


Some of the roofs are thatched with bamboo and grass, but as you can see, many now have clay roof tiles, which obviously last longer (though may cause more damage in an earthquake).

The inhabitants also decorate the interiors with mirrored reliefs, and even build cupboards in the same mixture of mud, dung and sawdust.

hut interiorcupboard

The village lives off the handicrafts it sells, and every hut seems to have beautiful embroidered hangings on display both inside and out.

sales samples

What surprised me was that the women do still wear the heavily embroidered backless aprons that they sell,  over very full (often bandhani) skirts. They are accessorised by glittery headcoverings, elaborate nose rings and dozens of bangles on the upper arms as well as the wrists.

meghwal dress

One of the villagers told us that the Meghwal are known for pakko embroidery, which literally means “solid” – and you can see how almost every inch of the fabric is covered with stitching. The most common stitches are chain, double buttonhole, stain and fly, supplemented with mirrors, tassels and pompoms.

We bought one of the aprons, here modelled by the embroiderer herself.


We were also tempted by another piece, but budgetary constraints meant we had to leave it behind to tempt another buyer another day!

embroidery left

Inspired by kantha

I’m going through a bit of an embroidery phase. First there was the Threads of Silk and Gold exhibition at the Ashmolean, then there was all the stunning embroidery I saw while in India (which I have yet to blog about).

But today I thought I’d show you what I’ve been working on since I got back from Gujarat, inspired by a piece I bought there.

Ironically, given that Gujarat is famous for its embroidery, my favourite of the many pieces I bought was not from Gujarat but from Bangladesh. Mr Wazir, whol ives in Bhuj, is famous for his collection of around 3,500 textile pieces, mostly from Gujarat but also elsewhere in India. He’s remarkably hospitable to visitors who just turn up on his doorstep without appointment (like us), offering tea, showing them pieces of his collection, and selling at reasonable prices.

All his collection consists of older pieces of work, as he says the quality of modern textiles is not as good. Fifty or even 20 years ago, women were expected to start sewing pieces for their dowry from quite a young age, and the standard had to be good to impress their future mother-in-law, or they wouldn’t get a husband!

Today, thankfully, women have more opportunities for other work and education, so most do not choose to focus on embroidery skills, and the quality of pieces that are made for the tourist market is not as high (though I have to say I was still impressed with most of them!).

We bought several pieces from Mr Wazir, of which my favourite is a kantha from Bangladesh. I fell in love with this at first sight. Compared with all the colourful designs, fancy stitches and shiny mirrors in the other work around it, this shone out as a beacon of simplicity.


It feels, dare I say it, almost Japanese – certainly the texture of the diamond shapes reminds me of the patterns achieved through stitched shibori.

kantha close up

Close up shot of shibori circle

In Bangladesh and West Bengal, women make kanthas from old saris and dhotis, by folding them to create several layers and stitching through all of them. Traditionally they also used thread unravelled from the sari border – so a great form of recycling.

I just couldn’t work out how they achieved the textured effect, but of course Debby, my tutor at Morley College and fount of all knowledge when it comes to constructed textiles, knew. It’s simply parallel rows of running stitch.

So I had a go at a sampler of different motifs and tensions.

kantha sampler

Looking at the circular motifs, I noticed that if I kept the tension of the stitches very tight, the white ridges between the stitches would protrude more and the circles started to form little domes.

This reminded me of my turtle project from many moons ago, and I wondered whether I could use this stitch not only to create pattern and texture but also to create a 3D form – just like a curved turtle shell.

sunburst turtle

And it does! As you can imagine, it’s a bit slow, but here’s the work in progress.

kantha turtlekantha turtle close up

Back from India

What a culture shock, arriving back from a balmy India to a freezing cold, sleety London with not a single cow anywhere on the road! 😉

I had a fabulous time touring Gujarat for three weeks, saw some amazing sights, met some wonderful people – and bought some terrific textiles. Our driver, Deep Singh, booked through Northwest Safaries, was excellent – courteous, safe, and completely unfazed at negotiating junctions involving, cars, buses, autorickshaws, bullock carts, camels, motorbikes (not to mention cows, goats, and wild pigs). He’s been doing the job for nearly 30 years, so he took us to artisans and producers – including, to my surprise, a felter! – not mentioned in any of the guidebooks.

I’ll be writing about some of the textiles and techniques I saw over the next few weeks, once I’ve caught up with real life again! But here are a few photos just to whet your appetite from this wonderfully inspiring trip.

With our excellent driver, Mr Deep Singh
With our excellent driver, Mr Deep Singh
gujarat haul
Some of my textile haul!
gujarat tyres
Even tyres in Gujarat display wonderful textures!
gujarat bags
Patchwork bags at the market
gujarat chair embroidery
Faded embroidery on a chair in the street
gujarat children
Friendly children in the cotton fields
gujarat cow
Probably the best-dressed cow we saw in India
gujarat cushion
Gorgeous cushion in Ahmedabad hotel
gujarat fish market
The most intense fish market I’ve ever been to, in Diu
gujarat geometry
Wonderful Mughal carving
gujarat hodka ceiling
Colourful ceiling display
gujarat leaf plaster
Leaves were used to create patterns on the plastered walls of a hut we stayed in
gujarat market
One of the most artfully arranged markets I’ve seen
gujarat rope chair
Rope chair in hotel bathroom
gujarat stone peacock
Peacocks are a very popular motif


Alighiero Boetti at Tate Modern

Making art from “upcycled” materials and textiles may be very fashionable now, but it’s been around for a while, as a new exhibition at Tate Modern shows.

Alghiero Boetti was born in Turin in 1940, and his first exhibitions featured many of the materials from the industries in the city – car paint from the Fiat plant, a plexiglass cube filled with wonderful contrasting textures of wood offcuts, plastic piping, styrofoam packing, fibreglass and corrugated cardboard. There’s even a classical fluted column made from cake doilies stacked on a metal pole!

But it was when he started taking an interest in travel and geopolitics that textiles came to the fore. After the Six Day War in the Middle East in 1967, he asked his wife to embroider the shapes of the territories occupied by Israel. He also coloured in a school map so that each country was represented by its flag, and took it to Afghanistan, where he commissioned local craftswomen to embroider a larger version. This was the first of his maps, which was done in Bokhara stitch, a very dense but time-consuming couching.

There’s a whole room of these embroidered maps made between 1971 and 1994, and it’s fascinating to see the changes over the years. Early maps used the Mercator projection, where Greenland is the same size as Africa, before switching to a Robinson projection. You can also track political shifts, as the flag of Portugal was replaced by Angola in 1983, and the last map from 1994 loses a great block of red as the former USSR is broken up into a collection of independent states.

The embroidery canvases were designed in Italy and sent to Afghanistan (and later Pakistan) to be embroidered, but Boetti often left gaps for the Afghans to include their own messages, so the borders juxtapose Italian texts with Persian messages about exile, composed by Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

The refugees also wove 50 kilims, some of which are on display. The pattern of these kilims is based on a grid of 100 squares, each of which is also subdivided into 100 squares, or pixels. The corner square starts off as one white pixel and 99 black pixels; the next one is two black pixels and 98 white pixels; the next one is three white pixels and 97 black pixels. So as the number of pixels follows a progression, the colours alternate.

As well as embroidery, Boetti explored lots of other concepts, including postal works using different combinations and patterns of stamps, and a lamp that lights up at random for 11 seconds a year (which didn’t occur during my visit!).

I particularly loved his works produced using biro pens, where individual students covered large sheets of paper with tiny blue strokes of biro. Even though they were all using the same tool, the different styles of mark making are very apparent, punctuated by white commas that encode various phrases. The overall effect reminded me of Japanese indigo dyeing.

The final room is a riot of colour, with three large embroideries called Tutto (Everything). Boetti cut out lots of images from magazines and newspapers and laid them out on canvas so that they all fitted together, then traced around them before sending them off to be embroidered.

There were lots of ideas in this exhibition – about the role of the artist being to explore inefficiency and wasting time, about how artists are expected to be private creators and at the same time public showmen producing spectacle, about creating a new world from pre-existing materials.

Indeed, the final exhibit of Boetti’s bronze self portrait on the balcony shows the artist spraying water onto his head, which conceals a heating mechanism, causing the water to turn to steam and evaporate. As the exhibition guide notes, “he shows himself as a thinker with so many ideas that he needs to cool himself down”.

Alghiero Boetti: Game Plan is at Tate Modern until 27 May 2012.

Abstract turtle prints

I haven’t written much about screen printing recently, mostly because my progress remains painfully slow. This is partly down to problems with equipment and space, but also due to silly mistakes that I’ve made – of which more later.

To cut a long story short, I abandoned my first turtle design after printing just one colour. It wasn’t really working for me, and given the time it takes to make each screen, I didn’t want to waste time on something that didn’t inspire me.

So it was back to the drawing board (literally) to come up with some new artwork. This time I decided to go more abstract, based on the pattern of a Testudo radiata shell.

I made a couple of different separations, so I have a couple of different first layers:

I also experimented with foiling the first version, which is a bit overwhelming:

And I also printed the first version onto transparent polyester in a couple of different colours, which creates an interesting effect when overlaid on the cotton print:

This week I was supposed to print the second colour on top. But a problem with the exposure machine ruined one screen, and when exposing the other I managed to place the artwork the wrong way round, so it didn’t line up with the first layer. Aaaargh!

Our tutor, Mark, said I shouldn’t waste the screen, so I used it to experiment with foil and flock.

The foil one turned out quite well, but the flock was less successful because the fabric was synthetic, so the flock stuck to the binder on the first layer as well as the glue on the second. But I learnt that if this happens it can be brushed off with a dry toothbrush. I also learnt that it is much more difficult to line up the screen properly, even without ink or glue, if the fabric is dark rather than light!

Hopefully next week I will finally get round to printing a second colour on top. In the meantime, I tried adding a second colour with embroidery, using a bit of wadding to add extra texture and evoke a turtle form (not very easy to see in this photo).


A stitch in time

Brixton is currently sprouting markets like mushrooms. As well as the monthly makers’ market (which is this Saturday – and did I mention I’ll have a stall there?!), there are now monthly flea markets and vintage markets, as well as food on Fridays.

I dropped in on the first flea market last Saturday and came across a stall selling old origami and craft books. Among the collection was a volume called Contemporary Whitework by Tracy A Franklin and Nicola Jarvis. Having become rather bogged down with printing over recent weeks, I think it may inspire me to take up the needle and do some more stitching.

Drawn thread work and pulled work look a bit too fiddly, but it might be interesting to experiment with some Richelieu and cutwork, and I love the textures produced by Mountmellick embroidery.

Avril, one of the students who was on the creative and experimental textiles course at Morley College with me last year, has been working on some beautiful embroidered buttons recently.

However, although I admire the effects of whitework, I think it would be very difficult for me to work in monochrome! I need colour as well as texture, so I’m more likely to use the techniques to continue on my rainbow-coloured path, as in the sample of fused plastic bags and bubble wrap below.